Continued from last week
During the era of the Nigerian Produce Marketing Company, NNSL was overburdened with the carriage of Cocoa produce and other export commodities at very low ocean freight rates which were deliberately agreed with the Maritime Conferences in order that the Nigerian export commodities would be competitive in the world market. This is because the commodities were sold on the basis of Cost, Insurance and Freight (CIF). NNSL was therefore used by government as an instrument of North-bound freight stabilisation in the overall interest of the country which was one of the object clauses in the company’s incorporation. The foreign shipping lines that reluctantly accepted the negotiated freight rates were however not particularly interested in lifting cocoa in bags because it was uneconomical or unprofitable to do so. NNSL vessels had no choice but to lift or load the export produce which at that time were shipped in bags and this kept the ships in ports longer than necessary due to the slow loading rate.
At its peak in the late 1970s and early 1980s, NNSL had 24 ships and was carrying as much as 11 percent of goods imported into the country. These included bringing in components for the Peugeot assembly plant in Kaduna.
On a less positive note, heroin smuggling by NNSL ship crew members was a significant issue in the 1970s and 1980s with Nigeria serving as a major transit point for drugs bound for Europe.
Nigerline (UK) Limited also suffered a setback with the country’s return to civil rule in 1979.
Highly place NNSL functionaries in Lagos began to criticize the operations of Nigerline. They queried a situation where decisions on ship repairs and maintenance were not totally controlled by Lagos Head Office even though all major repairs for strategic and economic reasons were carried out in Europe.
“The interest groups used the politicians to get the Nigerline (UK) Ltd wound up and the foreign officers relieved of their posts in the UK. Ship Agency seas were also awarded to some British companies. This means that the Agency fees which hitherto was earned by Nigerline (UK) was not only lost but the British officers who provided fairly honest and cost effective Ship repair services were sacked. Nigerians took over their places particularly in the Technical Department and repair costs sky-rocketed. The maintenance and personnel cost of the new NNSL local office was provided from the Lagos Head office as against the former Nigerline (UK) Ltd fending for itself through the agency fees. Ships started to be arrested by ship repair yards whose bills were not only unpaid but inflated”, Chidi who also worked in Nigerline said.
NNSL was no doubt running into troubled waters. The winding up of Nigerline did incalculable damage to its operations.
Trade creditors lost confidence in NNSL. Debts on maintenance and repair of vessels in Europe began to pile up. The company could not honour its obligations to creditors and the Nigerian government was certainly not ready to offer any helping hand at this time. It was the beginning of the end for a once promising shipping line.
“Concerning the Nigerian cargo liner River Gurara, she was lost a few miles from my home in the winter of 1989, near Cape Espichel on the Portuguese West coast. She had an engine breakdown and had to anchor off the coast. Due to bad weather, she dragged her anchor and sunk just in front of the cape. The tentative rescue of the crew was very dramatic and we could see the ship’s captain being taken from the bridge wing by the very heavy seas. Later logs from her wood deck cargo were discovered to have drugs concealed inside…”Lisbon based shipping historian, Luis Miguel Correia, posted on Ships Nostalgia Forum.
River Gurara was one of the vessels owned by NNSL. Its story was typical of other NNSL ships.
Those who pushed for the winding up of Nigerline did so purely for selfish reasons; to be in control and bleed the NNSL as much as possible. They eventually bled it to death.
I stumbled on several other posts concerning NNSL ships on Ships Nostalgia.
“My father joined Nigerian National as a coasting Master following his retirement from Elder Dempster in 1967. He served on all of the early ships (up to the River Niger class). The Dan Fodio seemed to be jinxed, as whenever she was in port she gained fines for polluting – she ALWAYS had a plume of thick, black oily smoke from her funnel when the port authorities were around. The Cross River was another exciting ship; always having engine problems! I remember she had an engine malfunction just at the wrong time (aren’t they always!) putting the ship, with my mother and father on board, onto the rocks on the way up to Grangemouth. (It) took an Admiralty tug to pull her off, doing minor damage to the ship, but a huge amount of damage to my father’s pride! I think my sister may have some photos of N.N. ships and I’ll ask her to dig them out for you”, posted one Allan James on 18thOctober 2005.
Roy Mercer’s post on 24th December 2005 read: “I was an engineer with Nigerline from 1966-68. I was in the Nnamdi Azikiwi, El Kanemi and the Oranyan. The trip in the Oranyan was a nightmare trip and my last trip to sea. I flew out to join her in Dakar, Senegal replacing the 3rd engineer. The company told me he had missed the ship at Dunkirk, he actually refused to sail in her and tried to stop her sailing as he thought she was unsafe. He was right; all the oil pressure cut outs on the generators were gagged, as they were running at 5-6psi. The air conditioning wasn`t working and there were many other problems. When we arrived in Lagos the Nigerian civil war was on and we were conscripted into the Nigerian Army. We appealed to the British Consulate to try to get off the ship but as we were on Nigerian articles they did not want (to) know. We took part in two invasions in Biafra. We eventually got home and I left the ship at Immingham never to go to sea again. I am sure but for that trip I would have stayed at sea for much longer”.
Excessive interference by top government officials also played an important role in the eventual demise of NNSL. There was no longer deliberate government policy to protect and support the company as was the case in the 1960s. Because it was seen as a cash cow, Ministry of Transport officials found every excuse to meddle in its affairs and thus circumvent important decisions.
Continues next week